Many champs have risen in re­cent ma­jors

Daily Press (Sunday) - - Sports - By Howard Fendrich As­so­ci­ated Press

2017 win­ner Serena seeks to end Slam drought with No. 24

When Serena Williams was at her best, there was never much doubt that she’d be the fa­vorite at pretty much any tour­na­ment she en­tered. While she was off the tour be­com­ing a mom, women’s ten­nis was as wide open as ever.

Could the Aus­tralian Open, where play be­gins Sun­day night (East­ern time), end the re­cent run in which eight women divvied up the past two years’ worth of Grand Slam cham­pi­onships, the first time that had hap­pened since the 1930s?

It be­gan with Williams tak­ing home her sev­enth ti­tle from Mel­bourne, and 23rd ma­jor sin­gles tro­phy over­all, in Jan­uary 2017. The world didn’t know it at the time, but she was preg­nant then; her daugh­ter, Olympia, was born on Sept. 1 of that year. Williams didn’t re­turn to Grand Slam ac­tion un­til last year’s French Open, and while she reached the fi­nals at Wim­ble­don and the U.S. Open, her ti­tle drought con­tin­ues.

In the mean­time, play­ers such as No. 1-ranked Si­mona Halep, de­fend­ing Aus­tralian Open cham­pion Caro­line Woz­ni­acki, Sloane Stephens, Naomi Osaka and Je­lena Ostapenko claimed their first ma­jors, while An­gelique Ker­ber and Gar­bine Mugu­ruza added to their col­lec­tions.

“It’s a joke when peo­ple say, ‘Who is your pick?’ Well, I don’t have a pick, OK?’” said Chris Evert, an 18-time ma­jor cham­pion who now is an an­a­lyst for ESPN.

Aus­tralian Open

“The abil­ity, I feel, and the tal­ent is so even with the women,” Evert said, “it re­ally will come down to the small in­tan­gi­bles, like maybe who wants it the most, maybe a lit­tle luck, who doesn’t have the re­ally tough matches where they’re ex­hausted.”

Where — and whether — the top women face each other will be fascinating to keep an eye on.

Williams could meet Halep, last year’s run­ner-up, in the round of 16.

Halep might need to get past Venus Williams in the third round to get there.

Stephens was drawn into a pos­si­ble quar­ter­fi­nal against Ker­ber.

And so on.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had the depth that we have right now,” WTA CEO Steve Si­mon said. “We have a very in­ter­est­ing dy­namic, with a unique blend of play­ers that you don’t al­ways have.”

Here are other things to know about the Aus­tralian Open, the year’s first Grand Slam event:

Djokovic’s dom­i­nance

Novak Djokovic re­turned to his old form in the last half of last sea­son, win­ning Wim­ble­don and the U.S. Open to run his ma­jor ti­tle to­tal to 14, trail­ing only Roger Fed­erer’s 20 and Rafael Nadal’s 17.

Even if he got off to a bit of a shaky start to 2019, Djokovic is still the odd­s­mak­ers’ fa­vorite to add to his count with what would be a record sev­enth tro­phy in Mel­bourne. “My fo­cus and ob­jec­tives are Grand Slams,” the 31-year-old Serb said. “That’s where I want to be able shine and play my best.”

New rules

Among the changes this year are first-to-10-points, win-by-two tiebreak­ers at 6-all in men’s fifth sets and women’s third sets; a new way of mea­sur­ing ex­treme heat and the al­lowance for 10-minute breaks ahead of men’s fourth sets — some­thing first seen at last year’s U.S. Open — and, as al­ready was the case, ahead of women’s third sets; 25-sec­ond serve clocks.

Roger and Rafa

Fed­erer has won the past two ti­tles at Mel­bourne Park and a to­tal of six, like Djokovic; they could only meet in the fi­nal in two weeks’ time.

Fed­erer might be 37, but he’s healthy and still looks young on court. The same can’t nec­es­sar­ily be said for Nadal, whose only Aus­tralian Open tro­phy came via a vic­tory over Fed­erer in the 2009 fi­nal. Nadal has dealt with in­juries in Mel­bourne over the years, in­clud­ing re­tir­ing dur­ing the quar­ter­fi­nals in 2018, and his hard-court record of late is dis­cour­ag­ing. But if he can put aside the thigh strain that cropped up in early Jan­uary, his game is good enough for an­other deep run.

New faces

There are a host of play­ers not ev­ery­one is fa­mil­iar with but who possess the skills to make a Grand Slam break­through.

Among them are Aryna Sa­balenka, Daria Kasatk­ina, Elise Mertens and Kiki Bertens among the women, and Ste­fanos Tsit­si­pas, De­nis Shapo­valov, Karen Khachanov and Alex de Min­aur (a 19-year-old Aus­tralian) among the men.

KIRSTY WIG­GLESWORTH/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

1. Novak Djokovic; 2. Rafael Nadal; 3. Roger Fed­erer; 4. Alexan­der Zverev.1. Si­mona Halep; 2. An­gelique Ker­ber; 3. Caro­line Woz­ni­acki; 4. Naomi Osaka.TV cov­er­age varies by the day, but it’s mostly on ESPN2. ESPN+ and ESPN3 have ex­ten­sive on­line cov­er­age.Mel­bourne is 16 hours ahead of the U.S. East­ern time zone. When it’s 7 p.m. in Vir­ginia, it’s 11 a.m. the next day in Mel­bourne — that’s of­ten when play be­gins. Ser­bia’s Novak Djokovic cel­e­brates af­ter win­ning the Wim­ble­don men’s sin­gles fi­nal against Kevin An­der­son of South Africa in July 2018. Djokovic then took the U.S. Open for his 14th ma­jor cham­pi­onship.

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